J. Michael Hagopian’s ‘The River Ran Red’ is An Act of Courage, An Act of Love

J. Michael Hagopian

Friday night, October 24, was the opening premiere of Dr. J. Michael Hagopian’s The River Ran Red at the 11th annual Arpa International Film Festival, held in the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, California. Following The Voices from the Lake, 2003, and Germany and the Secret Genocide, 2004, the long awaited The River Ran Red completed The Witnesses Trilogy, all directed, written and produced by Dr. J. Michael Hagopian. The River Ran Red was yet another project sponsored by The Armenian Film Foundation, a California non-profit organization which was founded by Dr. Hagopian. The event also marked the celebration of AFF’s 30 years of documentary filmmaking featuring 17 award-winning films on Armenian Subjects.

“Why did it happen? Why did it happen to the Armenia’s?” Dr. Hagopian often wondered. In April 1915, orders to eject Armenia’s from their homes were given by the minister of interior Talat Pasha, one of a triumvirate of powerful men who ruled Turkey, which also included Enver Pasha and Jemal Bey. Turks had conquered Armenian territories about 600 years prior to that, yet Armenia’s occupied a strategic geographical part of the Ottoman Empire. They grew more and more influenced by European ideas of justice, freedom and democracy. With a different religion, language and ethnicity, the government perceived them as a threat. “So they enflamed religious fanaticism to slaughter, deport, exterminate and wipe the Armenia’s off the map,” emphasized Dr. Hagopian in the River Ran Red. The orders were dispatched by telegraph from Constantinople to all provinces of the Empire. First World War was used as a cover up.

Thousands of years ago, Armenia’s established kingdoms on the plateaus at the source of the legendary Euphrates River that ran through the supposed sites of the Garden of Eden. Those were highlands mostly pivoted by neighboring nations in Asia Minor and the Middle East, explains Dr. Hagopian. The voices of tortured compatriots summoned Dr. Hagopian all the way to the banks of the Euphrates, to look for footprints of Armenian deportees who walked along the river, and to discover survivors who could tell him about the death marches down the Euphrates to the Syrian deserts, their final graveyard. In a span of 60 minutes, the audience was embarked on a journey “home,” through Dr. Hagopian’s camera lenses: a pilgrimage to “the road to hell,” carefully schemed and meditated upon by the Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire and Mustafa Kemal’s Republic of Turkey on occupied lands of Historical Armenia between 1925 and 1923.

“Weep no more lady, O weep no more today. We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home. For the old Kentucky home far away,” sang the man on the train in William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy. “Going home, boy – going back where I belong, he shouted.”

Born in Kharpert-Mezreh, on the banks of the Euphrates, Dr. Hagopian was then a child of two. He was saved because he was hidden in a dry well under a grove of mulberry trees. His father, a surgeon, and family were among the fortunate ones who survived the calamities and found their way to Boston, which became their home away from “home.”

During the last 40 years, Dr. Hagopian dedicated his life looking for eyewitness survivors of the Armenian Genocide and filming their testimonies. He traveled to 5 continents and interviewed 400 survivors who had been on the caravan trails along the Euphrates River. “I found survivors in many lands, strangers to each other, speaking in 13 different languages, but they had one story to tell the world: “We are all survivors of a simple truth. We saw a colossal genocide. We witnessed it with our own eyes.” This is the story of eyewitness survivors, whose nightmares have become my own. It is the unvarnished, horrendous and incomprehensible story of the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turkish government in 1915,” stated Dr. Hagopian in the River Ran Red.

“Turkish people put me in a Turkish orphanage;There were about 300 kids;Who can call Turks to prayer?…I had a good voice;I had to accept it;My father was religious;They made me dig up some of the famous celebrities who were buried in the church yard and made me urinate on them:” Harry Kurkjian, Detroit, Michigan 1985.

“My mother had no more milk to give to the baby;It’s too heavy, I can’t carry her anymore; Daughter, put her under the bush, let’s go;I won’t place my sister on the ground;She made me do it;I want to go and bring my sister;One night I was awaken by the sound of my father crying. He was sobbing just like a child. I reached out to him and wiped his tears away with my fingers;Then I heard someone singing far away in another section of the camp: Oror im anmegh aghavni (sleep my innocent dove); I could still hear today the sound of the duet, the sound of my father crying and the melancholy lamentation of the song:” Vartouhi Keteyian, Detroit, Michigan 1985.

“My mother said to me: Azad, run away, I’ll run after you… I didn’t see where she ran. We walked for a month, passing through wilderness, walking through the desert, 2 children;Suddenly we heard a voice;Water, water: a voice was calling. It was a girl. We found her buried. Only her head was above the sand. The Turk soldier had done all kinds of tortures. After torturing, after raping her, he buried her in the sand;You might as well die here like a dog. Hundreds, thousands died a dog’s death, you might as well expire here;He left her and ran away:” Azadouhi Aposhian, Sydney, Australia 1985.

“The lawyer gave me as a present to a Turkish family. Armenian children had no value. You could give them away, kill them, do anything you want;At night, they would massacre the men: during the day, the women and the boys;I fled to the forest;I saw the massacres;I saw it with my own eyes:” Hagop Boyarzian, Sydney, Australia 1985.

“Who I am? I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know; What’s my real name, when I was born, where, who my parents were:” Jirair Suchiasian, Melbourne, Australia 1985.

“Suddenly we saw many babies crying, buried in the sand, only the heads above the ground. Our guards charged towards the crying babies and trampled them to death. The crying voices stopped:” John Yervant.

“All those who want to change their religion can stay;Go to the city hall and register;Quite a few stayed, rich people, they didn’t want to leave behind their land and wealth;They became Muslims:” Vahran Morookian, Los Angeles 1985.

“I should hate the Turks but as I’m Christian, I must learn to forgive them, but I’ll never forget the horrible tragedy that the government and some Turks imposed upon 1.5 million Armenia’s who perished:” Richard Ashton, Fresno, California 1986.

“In 1953 I went to the town of Gurun where I was born in 1911. Mehmet Zeidan who spoke Armenian and Turkish came to see me with other Turks in my hotel room;He put before my feet a basket of fruits and in Turkish he told me: this is from your garden;Thank you;He lifted up his arms and asked me for forgiveness. I told him: God bless you, God forgive you, but I don’t know who you are;He told me he killed my father, 3 brothers and confiscated our home and garden:” Father Guergerian, retired priest of the Roman Catholic Church, New York, New York 1988.

“They would put old people, sick people, put gasoline on them and burn them to death. Not only this ditch, I saw 3, 4 other ditches. All the same way;We lived close to the river Euphrates. My brother and I would go swimming in the river. We used to see bodies floating down the river, hundreds and thousands of them:” an Arab witness, Nium Sukkar, Detroit, Michigan 1999.

Supporting the empirical research were testimonies from family members of missionaries, such as George Partridge, son of Ernest Partridge, then Christian missionary in Sevaz, Turkey, as well as archived documen’s, official letters, footage and photographs. German Consul Rossler in Ras ul Ain, Syria, in 1916 reported: “Three to 500 deportees were taken out from a concentration camp each day and butchered at a distance of 10 km. from Ras ul Ain.” A special report from the United States consul Jessy Jackson of Aleppo to the secretary of state describes the arrival in August 1915 of 5,000 emaciated deportees from Sevaz. Another letter from the consul dated June 5, 1915 to U.S. Ambassador Henry Morganthau, states as follows, referring to the stream of Armenian deportees: “They are being scattered over the desert to starve or die of disease in the burning heat. It is without doubt, a carefully planned scheme to thoroughly extinguish the Armenian race.” A young intellectual from Constantinople, Aram Andonian’s field investigations confirm the Western consular agents’ reports. Hidden in the basement of Hotel Baron in Aleppo, where Jemal Pasha stayed and used as headquarters during the war, he closely monitored the activities of the Turkish government. Photographs taken by Dr. Armin Wagner in Aleppo, then member of the German Red Cross, in addition to recently discovered pictures in the German military archives further support the existing evidence.

1.5 millions Armenia’s died in the Genocide. The audience came to learn that some 250,000 were thrown in the Euphrates River. During the summer and fall of 1915, about 870,000 Armenia’s had arrived in Syria. They were spread out in three lines. One moved towards Northern Iraq. Another moved southward from Aleppo to Damascus. The largest group of 590,000 moved along the Euphrates toward Deir Zor. Along the march between Aleppo and Deir Zor, deportees died at the rate of five to 600 a day. 192,000 were butchered in Deir Zor. 200,000 were killed by sword and burned in caves in Sheddeh. Convicts were let out of prison in Ras ul Ain to slaughter another 300,000 defenseless old Armenian men, women and children. “In 1916, the Armenia’s who had survived the death marches were forced into the Deir Zor desert. The largest massacres of the Armenian Genocide took place in the concentration camps of that desert triangle between the Euphrates and the Khabur River, the dumping ground of unwanted Armenia’s, the hell on earth, the place of extinction, of no return,” Dr. Hagopian reiterated.

As Dr. Hagopian expressed his humble words of gratitude to all who participated in the making of The River Ran Red and the realization of his quest, his fragile voice at 95 seemed to emanate a new found inner peace: a peace similar to the one a sailor may feel when his gaze would finally meet the calm shores at dawn, after a night of relentless struggle against the turbulent waves of the ocean; the one a physician may feel at the glance of a smile on a recovering patient’s face; or the one a child would feel when embraced by a doting parent. All those years of painstaking, dedicated pursuit of the lost voices of victimized compatriots had lead Dr. Hagopian home: not the one on the map, not constricted by time or space, but his home in his heart.

Armenian survivors’ eyewitness testimonies so diligently and meticulously gathered by Dr. Hagopian in The River Ran Red, supported by thorough archival research, belie the Turkish claims to innocence. Their accounts affirm that the deportation was a code for extermination, that the annihilation was predetermined and that the plans were centrally made. Among all the survivors who had witnessed on the screen, Dr. Hagopian is the only one who is still alive: a true leader in courage, compassion, perseverance, humanity and commitment to justice.

The nostalgic timber of the Armenian “dudug”, ancestral “sharakans”, and the melodious chants of the somber deportees joined their footsteps. The scenery was majestic: the pure indigo blue of the Euphrates, the lush vegetation on the enclaves. It was hard to believe that such beauty could have witnessed such enormous cruelty. “Where are you, God?” Women lamented. “Why did you leave us alone in such calamities?” Yet the atrocities were man made. They turned the Euphrates waters red, clogged its banks with corpses of innocent victims, young and old. Time washed the calamities away. Euphrates and its banks preserved their vehement beauty. So has the spirit of the Armenian people. As for the victims who succumbed at the strike of the sword, they were present among us in the theatre that night, and will always remain alive and honored in the collective consciousness of the Armenian people.

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